Wonderschool - The Startup Solving America's Childcare Shortage

Wonderschool discusses improving early education options and the benefits of starting companies with a mission.

People normally describe startups in numbers. How much did they raise? How many users do they have? What was their IPO price?

So it’s refreshing when you learn about a technology company that  leads with their mission. And it’s a mission in the classical sense, focused on solving a problem that’s more important than delivery dry cleaning or getting Pad Thai delivered to your door more quickly.

That’s why we were so excited to talk to Wonderschool - a company dedicated to using technology to solve the problem of inadequate early-childhood education faced by every community in America.

We spoke to Arrel, CTO and Co-Founder of Wonderschool, about the inspiration for his company and what it’s like to work at Wonderschool every day.



Wonderschool’s Co-Founder and CTO Arrel Gray relaxes at their San Francisco headquarters.


What problem is Wonderschool trying to solve?


Our mission is to make sure every child has access to early learning that helps them realize their potential. Right now, there’s an extreme shortage of quality childcare options in America and across the world.

There's not nearly enough childcare spots, only enough for about half the children in America, and a lot of those don't really meet the kind of quality standards you'd want. If you want to vastly increase the supply of options, you’d need to open a million plus schools in America alone. That’s exactly what we want to do by helping dedicated teachers open these programs in their own homes.



How does Wonderschool work?


The idea is we work with state licensing agencies so we can meet health and safety standards, get government support, and have help with background checks. We help talented teachers access these resources and then we add a quality layer on top of it that’s focused on child development.

There are some great reasons to encourage teachers to open schools in their homes. For one, the economics are excellent. A lot of the materials are already in place. Teachers are already paying rent. They already have the furniture. Licensing takes just a month or two. Up-front costs are really low and long-term costs are also low.


Program Director Daisy plays with her students at Daisy's Wonderschool near Riverside, CA.

The maximum size is twelve kids, so you don't need managers or administrators at these schools. As a result, you can charge at or below market rates for childcare and make a great salary. That’s positive for communities, children, and teachers.



How did you link up with your co-founder?


I'd been working with my co-founder Chris for 7 or 8 years. We had another company that we started together. We raised money around that and had some great investors. We built a company, but we didn't hit all the goals we wanted to so we shut it down.

But then we had the luxury of some money in the bank and a team of supporters. We spent a year looking around to decide: "if we could make our dream company, what would it look like?"


Wonderschool Co-Founder and CEO Chris Bennet took a break from his busy schedule to meet us.


What was the inspiration for Wonderschool?


There were two inspirations. One was I had a child around that time, and looking for childcare around was miserable. A lot of the options were low-quality and, when we did find a spot we liked that had availability, the opening was filled literally in the time it took for me to send them a check.


A student at PLAY Child Care & Preschool noticed the camera while working on a drawing!


Then I ran across an article about the Tangelo Park program, a nonprofit project from the 1990s.


Senior Recruiter at Wonderschool, Scott Morgan recently explained, “I’m passionate about Wonderschool’s mission to ensure every child has access to early education that helps them realize their potential.”


It was started in the early 90s by a guy named Harris Rosen. He adopted this neighborhood right outside of Orlando called Tangelo. He gave every child aged two to five free preschool by getting 10 people in the neighborhood to volunteer to open their homes for early childhood education. 25 years later, the neighborhood transformed. The crime rate dropped in half. For a couple years in a row, 100% of kids graduated high school.

Wild Rose Montessori Preschool's program director Amy Khoja teaches a curriculum where children are free to choose their own work, allowing them to make self-discoveries that teach them life skills.

It was this transformative idea that was so simple. So we started investigating: what was it that made that program work? We started interviewing in-home early education programs and the people who ran them in SF and LA. We saw a lot of advantages.



Why aren’t there more home-run early education programs?


When you run one of these programs, you really have two full time jobs. You're a teacher and then also an entrepreneur, so you have to know how to market yourself and do your finances. You need to hire assistant teachers and buy materials. But most of these teachers want to focus on running an amazing school.


Our dream is to coordinate all the finances, marketing, benefits, and let them focus on being an amazing teacher.



How’d you go about setting up the first Wonderschool?

Right now, you sign up for Wonderschool, you set up a school in your own home and Wonderschool helps you a lot.

But at our pilot school, we actually rented a home, found a teacher to move into the home, paid them a salary, and took care of everything in the classroom. We bought the materials, put in the furniture, facilitated a meeting with the fire marshal, got all the marketing, and hired assistant teachers - the whole deal. We wanted to see whether the economics were what we thought they were, and what the pain points were.

That was in Berkeley, a school called Angel Academy, it's still up and running!

After launching that, we felt it was a success, so we got three people in San Francisco to open their own homes and test that out. That worked out as well, and we've been building up ever since.



Do you ever have any trouble convincing parents to trust their kids to a startup?


Parents don't trust Wonderschool as much as they trust the teacher and the program. They come to Wonderschool’s website as a resource to help them find these schools. Everything we do is just to get them to visit the program and meet the teacher.


Elizabeth, the director at Welcome Amigos, is an excellent example of a Wondeschool program director who’s turned her home into a much-needed daycare facility.


Once they're there, they see the space and meet the teacher, and that's the key.


Blocks are a critical tool at the Wonderschool office. You never know when some kids might stop by!


What’s your daily schedule look like?


I have a slightly different schedule than most people. Every Tuesday I wake up in my home in Los Angeles and drive to the Burbank airport to fly up to the Wonderschool office San Francisco. So I’m traveling multiple days a week.

For me personally, my job has changed a lot over the years. When we did that pilot school, I was running around town, talking to people, and posting things up on facebook. Lots of manual labor too.



Once we started building the product, I became an engineer again, which is really what I've traditionally been for the last 15 years. But now, in the past six months, I've switched back into talking-to-people-mode.

Now mostly I'm in meetings. Having 1:1s, talking to new team members, talking to customers to understand how we can be better.


Wonderschool Head of Enrollment Operations, Maya Tobias helps to make sure kids are able to find and sign up at a Wonderschool near them.

You and your co-founder ran another startup before this one, what sort of lessons did you learn from that experience?


One was don't build a business on top of Facebook - a lot of people learn that lesson.

I learned something else too. Most people think of startups as technology companies, but they're still just people companies, and the people aspect is so much more important than the technology aspect. If you can't recruit amazing people and make sure they're working well together and happy and productive, there's no way you're going to get anywhere.



If you can't recruit amazing people and make sure they're working well together and happy and productive, there's no way you're going to get anywhere.

Speaking of people, what do you think sets the Wonderschool team apart from most startup teams?

Having this clear mission and being a mission-driven company is a huge advantage. People are super invested in making sure that we're helping to make a dent in a real problem. I think that's very different from some startups where the team doesn't really know why they're doing what they're doing other than to make money.



Where’s the Wonderschool office nowadays?

San Francisco. 19th and Alabama in the Mission. We started with just two people, my co-founder and I, but now we’re up to 30 people!

Wonderschool Director Melissa at the Garden Community Preschool poses with some of her students.



Does your team have a favorite lunch spot nearby?

Right now we’re excited about a new Tartine that just opened a block and a half away. It’s a beautiful restaurant and bakery.


Head of Data, Albert Lin crunches the numbers for Wonderschool.


What’s your favorite detail about the office you’re in right now?


We named all the conference rooms after early childhood education pedagogies. It's a nice reminder - you walk by a room called Waldorf or Montessori or Reggio Emilia and it keeps you grounded in what we're actually here for.

I love the Reggio Emilia room best. It has a couch and it's expansive - it’s a great big thinking room.


Wonderschool’s Reggio Emilia conference room is named after a theory of early childhood education that emphasizes giving children control and agency in their schooling.

What about office toys?


No nerf guns or anything, but we do have a bunch of children's toys in the office. It sets a great tone, and we have parents or teachers who come over here so we encourage people to bring their kids. Having the toys is great for that - we know these toys are going to be played with by actual kids.



What’s the strangest thing on your desk right now?

(Laughs) I don't really have a desk. I just wander around. I feel like my job is to make sure people are productive, so I try to talk to people all day. The lack of a desk helps me to make sure I'm staying on my feet and giving people the support they need.


Last question - I noticed you have a lot of great photos of the schools and directors of Wonderschool on your website. Is that intentional?


Showing great photos of Wonderschool programs helps get more parents to schedule in-person tours. Parents don't just want to read about a program, they want to see what it looks like before spending the time to go tour in-person. The difference between good and bad photos on a program's website can make or break the level of interest they get from parents. In this Instagram age, good photos are everything.

The professional photos have also been great for program directors to share on their Instagram and Facebook pages!


The Image of a Brighter Future for Child Development

We thoroughly enjoyed our opportunity to speak with Arrel about the startup life, the Wonderschool Office, and how marketplaces can make revolutionary differences in the lives of students and teachers.

As a marketplace for photographers, we’re serious advocates of any startup that’s working to connect people in new ways. That’s why we’re proud to be helping Wonderschool capture great images of the facilities and teachers in their program through the Snappr for Business product.

Speaking with Arrel and seeing the smiling faces of his coworkers reminded us that the best way to build a company that people are passionate about is to focus on solving problems that affect us all. We’re looking forward to sharing many more stories of startups that are having positive impacts on their communities. See you next time!

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Special thanks to Snappr Photographer Heather K for capturing these amazing images! See more of her work (or book her for your own event!) on her Snappr Profile.


Author
Adam Griffith
Photographer
Heather K

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